As a psychology professor, I teach a variety of classes. One class I teach each year is a class called Psychology of Learning. In that class, my students and I discuss the idea that our behavior is essentially governed by three things:
Our past experiences
Our current conditions (the environment around us)
For example, my genes will have an effect on how fast I can run, because I was born with relatively short legs.
My past experiences will also impact my running speed. For example, if I’ve been lifting weights for the past 6 months, I might be able to run faster because my legs are stronger than they’d otherwise be.
Finally, my current environment will also affect how fast I run. If I’m running barefoot on a stone-covered road, I will probably run slower (and experience more pain) than if I had shoes on or if the road was smooth.
Now, this idea—that our behavior is wholly affected by these three factors—leads to another conclusion, something that often makes people uncomfortable.
And it is this: If these other factors ultimately cause us to behave, then we don’t direct our own actions.
When we talk about this idea, my students get restless (largely because it seems to impinge on well-established beliefs about “free will” and other related ideas). They don’t like the notion that their behavior is determined largely by factors “outside of them.” They don’t like the idea that their behavior seems to be “out of their control.”
And because this idea is uncomfortable, they prefer to cling to the more common notion that we direct our own behavior.
“I decide what to do, when to do it, and how I’m going to do it.”
Period. End of story.
Now, I understand why the “I-direct-my-own-actions” idea is preferred. In our culture, we value freedom and responsibility and personal accomplishment.
The problem with this idea, though, is that it often leads to inaction, frustration, and disappointment, especially when we experience failure or when we (unsuccessfully) try to change our habits.
If the causes of our behavior ultimately come from within, then when we fail (which we will all do at some point), the logical conclusion has to be that we must not have “it.”
If I don’t get a good grade in my class, then I’m not smart.
If I keep eating too much junk food, then I must not have any self-control.
If I can’t get off the couch to exercise, then I must not have any motivation.
And so on…
Unfortunately, when people conclude that they don’t have “it,” they often give up.
“I obviously don’t have it, so why should I even try?”
“I can’t do it. I guess it’s just the way I am.”
On the other hand, think about what can happen if we accept that our behavior is determined by factors outside of us (like our current environment).
That means that if we can identify those environmental factors, we can change them. For instance:
If you’re doing poorly in class because your teacher isn’t very good (not because you’re dumb), you can find someone to tutor you.
If you tend to binge because you have junk food in the house (not because you have no willpower), you get rid of it.
If you haven’t been going to the gym because you don’t like going alone (not because you’re unmotivated), you can find someone to go with you and set up a behavioral contract.
Now, of course, we are, to some extent, limited by our genetics. I, for example, will probably never be a champion sprinter (it’s those damn short legs again!).
But if I understand that factors outside me affect my behavior and the environment around me might be what’s holding me back, then I can try to change it.
And when I find a way to change my environment in positive ways, then my behavior will change for the better as well.
Ultimately, acknowledging that your behavior is controlled by factors “outside of you” doesn’t mean you’re no longer in control, that you’re somehow a mechanical robot that mindlessly goes through life reacting to whatever is happening around you.
Instead, I think it’s an incredibly hopeful way of thinking. Understanding that your behavior is affected by environmental factors can provide a sense of optimism—the belief that you can change things, that there is the possibility for a better life.
Accepting that your behavior is controlled by factors “outside of you” doesn’t mean you have no control. In fact, it means just the opposite.
You have more control than you think.
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